Bridenstine Says Satellite Industry Needs to Do More

One of the eternal questions that has been asked down the years is how the U.S. government can better use assets from the commercial satellite industry to further its ambitions and provide better solutions to warfighters, as well as in hotspots around the world. The question is whether the positive rhetoric will translate into a more progressive approach going forward.

Via Satellite recently spoke to Winston Beauchamp, a member of the Senior Executive Service, the deputy under secretary of the Air Force for space, and the director, principal DOD space advisor staff, the Pentagon, and Congressman Jim Bridenstine, who was elected in 2012 to represent Oklahoma’s First Congressional District. He serves on the House Armed Services Committee and the Science, Space and Technology Committee, where he was selected to serve as Chairman of the House Environment Subcommittee.

Bridenstine believes the U.S. government is “moving in the right direction” in terms of taking advantage of commercial communications satellites, and commercial communications satellite providers. However, he thinks more can and should be done.

“There is a broad agreement inside the DOD that we need to take advantage of commercial communications. Some of the areas where we need improvement is including commercial communications satellite providers in the Analysis of Alternatives (AOA), and including them in the development of solutions for the next generation satellite architecture. We need frequency hopping or spread spectrum. We need encryption capabilities. These are all things that when we think about the next generation of commercial satellite architecture that can be utilized by the DOD, I think it would be appropriate for commercial satellite providers to be involved in that process on the front end, so it is not an afterthought where the U.S. government is coming in and saying we need capacity,” he says.

However, talk like this is not new and Bridenstine admitted that satellite communication architectures “do not develop overnight,” and that the process to create them is long, even on the commercial side of things. He talks of the importance of breaking down these barriers between the commercial satellite industry and government. “The reason we need to break down these barriers, is that we want to take advantage of the quick turnaround that commercial can provide in providing next generation systems; where the DOD may take 10 to 15 years, commercial satellite operators are getting systems within three years. We need that advantage that commercial can bring from a timeline perspective. We also need those commercial providers to have secure capability so we can take advantage of their systems from a DOD perspective.”

Bridenstine believes there are ways in which commercial and military satcoms can be brought together. He says this will likely involve using multi-band terminals and multi-band ground systems, so regardless of what the platform might be, you are going to use whatever satellite capacity may happen be overhead and available so the DOD can take advantage of both milsatcom and commercial satcom. He believes the terminals are the key and the ability to use Ku-band, Ka-band, X-band, etc. — but he admits this does not happen overnight. “These are capital projects that will take years. I think it is necessary for DOD and for Congress to work on making sure the funding is available so that we re-capitalize fleets and/or aircraft that go into heavy maintenance, we can provide multi-band terminals for our systems,” he says.

Beauchamp echoes these sentiments and says things are changing. He says in the past there was much more divergence between the needs and the acquisition processes of the U.S. government. He says there has been much more convergence over time. “We are about to begin an Analysis of Alternatives (AOA) to examine the appropriate mix between milsatcom and commercial satcom as part of the overall architecture. The intent for this analysis is to make it much more inclusive and easier for industry than a typical AOA would be if we were building a single purpose military system. The reason for that is because there is so much alignment between what services the commercial market can provide and the Department needs.”

Analysis of Alternatives

The AOA is in the process of kicking off. However, Beauchamp admits that work has been going on since last fall, where the government has been coordinating with industry to understand what some of the newer offerings are looking like, as well as engaging in other pre-AOA activities such as “dusting and polishing off the requirement” for its satcoms needs and making them more inclusive of the various modalities that satcom can deliver. “We are trying to remove any cases where we dictate implementations within the requirement set, and make it so that as much as possible of that is in the tradespace. Beauchamp believes this will enable the DOD to take a hard look at the mix of milsatcom services and commercial satcom services, so that it can get the best economic quantity on each. “Depending on the approach, we would love to do some funded study work with the vendors, which would lead to some demonstrations against that requirement set in the next year or two after that. Luckily, we have a healthy constellation of WGS satellites and a healthy set of existing contracts with commercial satellite providers and so there is not a need for us to rush this process, and potentially get it wrong,” he says. “I would rather get real on-orbit experience, both from a technical capabilities perspective as well as a business model perspective, and seeing what business models these vendors propose.”

Satellite Industry Needs to Defend Their Position

While both Bridenstine and Beauchamp are positive that barriers are coming down, there is still a sense that the commercial satellite industry could do more. Bridenstine admits that one of his concerns is that certain parts of the electromagnetic spectrum are being taken off the table because of terrestrial networks. He says the satellite industry “needs to step up and say satcoms can provide things from a national security perspective that terrestrial cannot do or from a humanitarian systems perspective,” he says.

Expanding on the theme, Bridentstine adds, “So, if we are going to damage electromagnetic spectrum that is reserved for satellite communications for a terrestrial network that is not going to have the ability to reach the globe that satcoms can, then we are doing the wrong things. I really think satellite providers need to step up and defend their position a little stronger. They have been doing well on that. But, there is a lot of policy makers and legislators that are not familiar with how critical the ability to reach the globe is when it comes to national security and humanitarian systems.”

High Throughput Satellites (HTS)

HTS are changing things across the satellite industry. Beauchamp says the great thing about technology developments in satellite is they tend to go after some of the requirements that are most important to the DOD.

“We are concerned about improving the resiliency of our satellite communications architecture. To do that, we are interested in both on-board improvements in both hardware and software to make them more resilient to interference, but also at the architectural level to diversify the platforms upon which our requirements are placed. We recognize that potential adversaries have developed the capability to jam and intercept these communications pathways and we are working with the providers of these services to make them more resilient,” he says. “The good news is that this is the direction these providers are going anyway. For economic reasons, they are looking to move to HTS. They are looking to change to digital payloads with software-defined waveforms that can hop across frequencies to avoid interference. They are looking to go to multiple spot beams of much smaller size, and this is good, because if the source of interference is a country-wide beam, it can interfere with the signal.”

He adds that when a spot beam focuses on one city, you have a much less chance of that interfering with the signal. If it is being done on purpose, an adversary would have to deploy many, many more jammers to deny communications. “What to the industry is unintentional interference, to the DOD, we call jamming. We are looking to mitigate both. As it turns out, the technologies that mitigate one help with the other. This is a great convergence of the technology trends on the satellite communications market with the needs of defense departments around the world,” notes Beauchamp.

Bridenstine has also hailed the pace of change. He says the generational leaps we are seeing in terms of seem to be happening “every year or two in terms of capacity and throughput” and that these HTS are changing the environment for the better for the long term. He says the U.S. government needs to be taking advantage of that.

“So, how does the U.S. government take advantage of these generational leaps? That is the question. But, at the same time, how do we make sure our communications are secure. I think that is really the challenge that is ahead of us. It is game-changing to the extent that the U.S. government can take advantage of it. This is where we need to be and we are moving in this direction,” says Bridenstine. “There is this idea out there that we have this tyranny in terms of program of record. So, when the WGS constellation is developed, what will be the next program of record in satellite? While it is important to have a government backbone, it is important to recognize the generational leaps being developed by commercial satellite operators, because they are so large, we need to be leveraging that capability. What we need is to look at how we can take advantage of those generational leaps.”

Contested Space

One of the big changes over the last few years is that many countries have looked to develop a space strategy

“It is important to note that space is becoming ever more hostile and enemies of the United States are being more aggressive in space,” Bridenstine says. “You have the Chinese testing direct-descent, anti-satellite weapons all the way up to GEO orbit, and you have the Russians testing direct-descent, anti-satellite weapons. You have the Russians engaging in this Luch satellite that is maneuvering in GEO orbit from one satellite to another. You think about the proliferation of all of the space denial capabilities. You are talking about jamming, spoofing, dazzling, hacking. The Chinese hacked into the national weather service and compelled us to shut down our ground stations and deny the United States the ability to use our satellite assets to predict our own weather. These are all very serious things.”

He says being a congressman from Oklahoma, where people die from tornadoes every year, shutting down weather satellites is seen as “very provocative” and what is happening in space is very serious. Bridenstine believes space is being contested in ways that “we have never seen before” and that it is no longer a sanctuary being used for peaceful purposes. “You have got potential adversaries of the United States developing their own position, navigation systems while at the same time testing direct-descent satellite weapons. These are very provocative moves especially when the U.S. GPS signal is available for free,” he says. “You have other nations building their own [Positioning, Navigation and Timing] PNT systems while testing direct descent and co-orbital satellite capabilities. This is hugely problematic and provocative. The U.S. government needs to take this very seriously,” he adds.

Cautious Optimism

However, while space maybe coming more contested and the U.S. government still looks to figure out the equation of how it can make the most of working with commercial satellite operators, there is a general feeling that things are on the cusp of change.

“We are in this big virtuous cycle of technology investment, service provisioning and economic advantage derived from those services that will only continue to feed itself as we learn more and more about what services can be delivered from space. As the analytical community gets to grips with what you can do with ‘Big Data’ and as location based services take off, to feed every market on the terrestrial field to include self-driving cars and handheld devices like cellphones, it will continue to redefine itself and deliver a suite of services we cannot yet imagine today, much the same way that the original developers of GPS could never imagine that their products are used in the manner they are today, and how central they are to daily life of citizens around the world. I am excited to be at the center of that new space revolution, any my goal is to ensure that the U.S. government and DOD can take advantage of every bit of it,” Beauchamp says.

Bridenstine says the United States has long been the leader when it comes to space activities, but he believes the United States needs to look at space more comprehensively. He says the country has different systems that have been developed under different agencies for different purposes. “We are not looking space comprehensively with a strategic purpose. You have got folks that are focused on weather like NOAA, and you have the DOD which has a weather component and you have even have NASA which is involved in weather,” he adds. “We need to look at weather comprehensively so what are all those pieces of space architecture that will allow us to better predict weather. It is not just true for weather, but it is true for other pieces of space-based capabilities as well. I am focused on breaking down these stove pipes. We need to look at things in a much broader perspective.”

The Business of Buying Capacity

One of the major challenges is getting more capability for less money. Budgets will vary over time, but Beauchamp believes the single biggest factor that the U.S. government is looking at is what the impact of its drawdown and deployments overseas will do. He says many of its commercial satcom funding lines are driven by its overseas contingency operations budget. He says the goal is to find a way to rationalize that budget so it isn’t dependent on the ebb and flow of Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), and it can build a stable strategy into the base budget.

When discussing potential business models, Beauchamp says the government has funded a good chunk of its commercial satcom buys with the overseas contingency money, which is one year money. He says the government has been restricted to purchasing a point-to-point link and buying bandwidth Mhz point-to-point, and essentially using the buying on the spot market.

“What that means is that we are essentially paying very high prices for it compared to longer term leases that many other organizations are able to get. However, those prices have been coming down. The companies are not able to plan long term. But, ideally what they would like to know over a longer period time is what a stable set of requirements from the DOD will be so they can make their investment choices regarding new satellites based upon a reliable customer base. The business model we have been using, essentially the short order book approach, is probably not the way to proceed in the future. We would like to enter into some longer term arrangements, while fully realizing we are going to need to maintain flexibility to surge in a time of crisis,” Beauchamp says.

One of the key questions is whether it is possible to have a predictable low-cost capacity model for a customer like the U.S. DOD. Beauchamp says the DOD is engaged right now working with partners in DISA in a series of Pathfinder efforts to explore different business models that will have more flexibility built in. He highlights one example where the U.S. DOD is engaged a commercial provider to buy a service of a satellite that did not quite make it into its orbit in North Africa, and it has essentially paid a steeply discounted price for the service and it will certainly use that service over the region that it covers, but it is not going to use 100 percent of it, so go ahead and make it part of your plan, and your allocation scheme. “I will take the bandwidth that I have paid for and you spread it out over your entire constellation. So, having tradeable deals like that, rather than single fixed transponders is a flexibility measure that we can apply into the future. So, the potential for an investment in a system upfront, even prior to launch, potentially would enable us to both ensure that the companies have the capital they need to put up systems in a timely manner, and ensure that we have investment in an entire architecture that we can then shift around to respond to changes in the world situation,” he says. VS

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